Playing fast and loose with the past is current fashion in the cinema. Christopher Tookey defends historical truth against political correctnessby Christopher Tookey / November 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Published in November 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
History used to be bunk. Now, thanks to the film industry, bunk has become history. Go to the movies this month, and you have a choice between American colonial history (Pocahontas), Scottish mediaeval history (Braveheart), 20th century Spanish history (Land and Freedom) as well as the history of space exploration (Apollo 13). Go to the video store, and there among the most prominent new releases are 19th century American history (Geronimo) and a revisionist view of American history since the postwar baby boom (Forrest Gump). Mostly, modern notions of political correctness have wildly distorted the truth.
There is nothing new in creative artists revising history to fit their own-or their audiences’-perspective. Shakespeare did it. The trouble is that this new collection of historical films takes simplification to the point of simple-mindedness.
It isn’t only Hollywood. The most tendentious of all the current films on release is Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom. The argument offered by Loach and his writer Jim Allen, that during the Spanish civil war members of the International Brigade sealed the defeat of the left by being Stalinist stooges, is unproven.
Although the film is set against the political in-fighting of the 1930s, it is much more informative about the present state of the sectarian left in Britain. It gratefully seizes the opportunity to put the boot into the communists now that they are down and out, and is transparently a counterblast to the pragmatism of Tony Blair, an inchoate plea for more idealism.
The Oscar-bound Apollo 13 has a very different hidden agenda. Politically, it is an antidote to the cynicism of Philip Kaufman’s 1982 film The Right Stuff, which saw the space race as a product of the cold war, and satirised spaceflight as a gimmicky public relations excercise by the industrial-military authorities. Ron Howard’s new film takes a deliberately blinkered, more hero-worshipping approach, and has become a rallying-cry for those Americans who wish to revive President Kennedy’s vision of space as the new frontier.
Apollo 13 is aimed at the same essentially conformist, conservative movie-going audience which welcomed last year’s Oscar-winner Forrest Gump-a movie which rewrote the history of America since the 1960s as a celebration of unthinking patriotism, while simultaneously portraying civil rights discontent, pop culture, and widespread opposition to the war in Vietnam, as moral decadence.
The political agenda behind Disney’s animated film Pocahontas is more liberal-but it is even less subtle: it seeks to improve race relations and bolster native American pride. Russell Means, the actor who provides the voice of Pocahontas’s father, Chief Powhatan, has described it as “the finest film that Hollywood has ever done on the native American experience.”
A more detached observer might note that it is one of the most blatantly propagandist history pictures of all time. Chief Powhatan is depicted as a devoted father and a peace-loving anti-imperialist; in reality he fathered more than 100 children by numerous women and was a ferocious imperialist, exterminating his Chesapeake rivals and forcing neighbouring tribes to give him 80 per cent of everything they grew or caught. Before the British colonisers arrived, he ran a highly successful protection racket.
Pocahontas is also shown as an impeccable anti-imperialist, faithful to her race and roots (she is so in tune with Nature that her best friend is a tree). When the white settler John Brown promises her roads and “decent housing,” and calls her people “uncivilised,” she is quick to put him right: “What you mean is people not like you.”
The real Pocahontas was rather different. Far from criticising western civilisation and imperialism, she turned her back on her tribal beliefs, converted to Christianity, became a paid advocate of capitalism, married an old, white, titled sugar-daddy who founded the tobacco industry, and founded the dynasty which imported slave labour to America.
Just as grotesque a distortion is Disney’s pretence that her example inspired an era of racial harmony. On the contrary, her tribe under Chief Powhatan’s successor (Pocahontas’s uncle) descended on Jamestown in the early morning of March 22nd 1622 and hacked to death one third of the settlement’s 1,200 inhabitants. The British settlers’ behaviour was little better and by the end of the 17th century Virginia had been “ethnically cleansed” of all its Indians.
Walter Hill’s film Geronimo, just released on video, gives a much more truthful account of America’s racial history. It records how, in the latter part of the 19th century, the whites systematically “cleaned up” the few remaining pockets of Indian resistance, and packed off its native American citizens in railborne cattle-trucks to unfamiliar parts of the country-and prison.
Hill’s film puts the counter-argument to Pocahontas-that multi-racial America was founded not on a shared interest in racial harmony, but on the naked exercise of power by one race over another. America has, not surprisingly, proved unwilling to listen. Geronimo has been a commercial failure, whereas Pocahontas is a hit.
It could be argued that the historical content of films such as Pocahontas is unimportant; it exists to entertain, not to instruct, and it patently isn’t a work of realism. But films do form our images of history-who can think of Henry VIII without remembering Charles Laughton, or TE Lawrence without recalling the face of Peter O’Toole? Historical movies create real heroes and heroines. The Disney Pocahontas is now more “real” to today’s generation of movie-goers than the Pocahontas of history.
The new wave of history movies is especially misleading about the nature of imperialism. Clearly, colonialists have committed many acts of greed, callousness and inhumanity. Few people today would advocate a return by Hollywood to the jingoism of Gunga Din. However, the consensus among modern film-makers is to claim that imperialism is an unmitigated disaster. It isn’t. The empire of the ancient Greeks spread a culture which most people today would regard as “civilising.” Britain owes much to its Roman and Norman conquerors, just as India is indebted to its Persian invaders and the British Raj, and America to its white settlers.
Yet films such as Braveheart and Rob Roy reduce the message of history to two slogans-Freedom good, Tyranny bad; and Scottish good, English bad. The “feelgood” ending to Braveheart suggests that Scotland under Robert the Bruce-inspired by the glorious example of Sir William Wallace-won its “freedom” after Bannockburn in 1314.
A more realistic postscript might be that this was freedom for Scotland to suffer under Bruce’s son David II, surely one of the worst rulers in the history of the British Isles, who ruined his country with futile raids into England, and sold out the independence of Scotland by offering the succession to the English king Edward.
Equally anti-imperialistic, In the Name of the Father cleverly, almost subliminally, and misleadingly portrays the Irish in Britain as second-class citizens. In the prison scenes, for example, the people immediately sympathetic to the wrongly imprisoned Conlons are black. The implication, especially for the American audience at whom the film was primarily aimed, is that the Northern Ireland problem is essentially an issue of civil rights; it is about fighting back against racist oppression.
That is a tenable attitude; but I have seen no film which takes the view, shared by all the leading political parties in Britain, that the Irish problem is not a question of England exerting arbitrary power over long-suffering, Northern Irish sons and daughters. The consensus view in mainland Britain sees the Northern Irish problem in terms of warring brothers and sisters, with the “fatherland” (the British government) willing to hand over power if the siblings were to behave in a sensible and civilized fashion.
A naively anti-imperialist world view is especially attractive to transatlantic audiences. Somewhere lurking at the back of every American’s consciousness is the awareness that his nation was born out of rebellion against the British. But as more and more films appear with English villains, it looks as if the English are being blamed for any acts committed by white people from which modern Americans prefer to dissociate themselves.
The irony is, of course, that the US-a country which seems to regard itself as anti-imperialist-is now the most culturally imperialist nation on earth, has military strength which any previously known imperial power would envy, and uses its power and influence sometimes for good and sometimes for ill-pretty much as white-dominated colonial powers have done throughout their histories.
While European film makers such as Ken Loach pursue a lonely struggle on the left, largely unnoticed by anyone except a handful of admiring film critics, Hollywood continues to tell horrible lies to America and the rest of the world about the world’s colonial and racial history, with an insincere and ill-informed devotion to the cause of the underdog.
It is often hard to know whether to view their efforts with amusement or alarm. But one disconcerting lesson of the 20th century is that a nation which tells itself self-aggrandising lies about its own history is bound, in the end, to suffer an identity crisis which will cause immeasurable harm-and not only to itself. n